Very likely the result of my military background, I confess to being very demanding of the leadership structure within a business or organization. Part of this is because I have seen and experienced the incredible things we can accomplish with just the slightest smattering of leadership and part because I have seen and experienced the disastrous effect of our being unwilling to lead.
In writing this I would tell you that the last sentence here initially included “or unable” to lead, but that is something I am not sure I have ever run across. It is nearly always a case of our being unwilling. I believe all of us have the capacity and ability to lead if we so choose. Most of us choose not to lead.
According to William Deresiewicz in „Solitude and Leadership‟ “What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army –a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.” He talks about our being complacent, the beneficiary of wealth and power earned under earlier generations and maintaining the status quo being our prevailing priority.
In another generation John Kennedy might have talked about the difficulty of getting to the moon as a reason not to go, rather than committing our nation to the attempt when he said “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”
I would confess to believing in people and though this has gotten me in trouble more than once over the years, I have found that most people respond to your belief and confidence by working hard to accomplish the things you would ask of them, particularly if you are doing something way outside the norm and actually training your people and setting them up for success. Though training is inconvenient and a hassle, that I am willing to pay out good money to make sure my people are trained actually communicates my commitment to them, and even allows me to make demands toward our taking on more difficult tasks and even in our expecting reasonable levels of quality.
Training creates an expectation of competence, leadership makes sure those expectations become our new reality. What‟s not to like about that? The other side of that coin is staff members who haven‟t a clue of what we expect beyond the periodic temper tantrum we throw when somebody crosses that invisible line we have set up with some misstep or misbehavior and worst of all in this is that at the end of the acrimony, rather than taking the opportunity to let our staff members know what our actual expectations are or what went wrong, we storm off in a huff. Now that‟s what I call leadership and setting a good example! I am guessing that if our Mom had witnessed this we would be standing in a corner somewhere. Nobody likes a bully and our people deserve better than our anger and frustration. The very worst part in this is that as leaders we are responsible for where we are and for what we are or are not doing. Turn that frustration to a sense of accomplishment and lead your people to a better place.
I don’t care if you are red, round and weigh five hundred pounds, if you are occupying a leadership position, a position that would require you to oversee the performance of other staff members, you are tasked with and accountable for getting your people to do the things they are supposed to do and at a level of quality that will assure their success and the success of the business or organization. I don’t care if you are a talking head or if you don‟t know a crankshaft from a connecting rod, staff members are responsible for tasks, leaders are responsible for success. I would go one further by saying that along with that success, as a leader you are responsible for the welfare, morale and attitude of your team members. If performance is bad or productivity is low, that is on you. If team members are not hitting their goals, if they are confused or uncaring about the expectations you have set, it would be very easy to blame them, but poor performance rests squarely with the leadership and that means you. Our people cannot read our mind and cannot possibly know our expectations if we have not talked to them and if we have not done something toward demanding better. No more than a football coach can blame his team for a loss, we as leaders cannot point fingers and blame our people when they fail. A pattern of failure is a symptom of poor or nonexistent leadership. If you do not plan for and set expectations for excellence, you are by default setting expectations for mediocrity or even failure. Excellence never just happens.
Right from the start if it is all about you, you have missed the opportunity that leadership offers and made mission accomplishment nothing more than an extension of your ego. A young soldier in a foxhole, just like your administrative assistant or the young cashier out front on the counter, all need to know and understand what is in it for them and feel that their contribution means something and that it is important to the team’s success. Why would anyone waste their time or put themselves at risk if they don’t feel a connection to the mission or goal? And if we have communicated their efforts are insignificant or unimportant, we have all but said that they don’t matter. In professional sports, in military operations and in the projects and tasks you take on in your business or organization, leadership has the opportunity to set individual and team goals and in this, define success. If you are forgetting this important step, if you are failing to set expectations toward excellence, you are solely responsible when failure comes „a calling. And though you will be sorely tempted to blame somebody, it is you that asked for nothing toward extraordinary. Your team gave you exactly what you had asked for; a half-assed effort with no expectations for quality and no time set aside for excellence. And out on the other side of this I am wondering what our customers are seeing and hearing and experiencing. I can promise you that if there are no expectations for excellence behind the counter, there is nothing spectacular going on out in front of it. Customers can go anywhere to be treated poorly and if you and your people are not giving customers a great reason to come back, why would they? Only leadership and high expectations can go beyond the norm and deliver the extraordinary. Remember that when business is slow and when you look up one day and note that you have not seen a lot of the good customers you had made over the years. Somehow they have wandered off and you are left wondering why.
Douglas MacArthur, as he bids farewell to West Point and the Corps of Cadets, defines the mission, sets a very high standard for performance and an immediate urgency toward success. As he passes the torch to the next generation of military leaders, he leaves no confusion as to what their priority needs to be and his fidelity to them and to the cause. “And through all this welter of change and development your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable. It is to win our wars. Everything else in your professional career is but corollary to this vital dedication. All other public purpose, all other public projects, all other public needs, great or small, will find others for their accomplishments; but you are the ones who are trained to fight…. In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield. But in the evening of my memory always I come back to West Point. Always there echoes and re-echoes: Duty, Honor, Country.
Today marks my final roll call with you. But I want you to know that when I cross the river, my last conscious thoughts will be of the Corps, and the Corps, and the Corps. I bid you farewell.”
You are the leader. Who have you inspired to greatness today?
About the author:
Brian Canning is a regular contributor to weLEAD and a business analyst working in the federal sector. For the past thirty years he has worked in the automotive repair industry, most recently as a leadership and management coach with the Automotive Training Institute in Savage, Maryland. After serving as a tank commander with the 1st Armored Division in Europe, he started his career as a Goodyear service manager in suburban Washington D.C., moving on to oversee several stores and later a sales region. He also has been a retail sales manager for a large auto parts distributor, run a large fleet operation and headed a large multi-state sales territory for an independent manufacturer of auto parts. His passions are history, leadership and writing.
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